-- Justin Abdelkader
has almost always played close to his home in Muskegon. So scoring an insurance goal in his first Stanley Cup Final game with the Detroit Red Wings
was like heaven on earth.
Or at least from Muskegon to Detroit, all the way down I-96.
"It's pretty crazy ... first Stanley Cup Final game and I get a goal. Wow! My family and buddies I grew up with are never going to believe this," the 22-year-old said after his third-period goal helped the Detroit Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins
3-1 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. "I've played on every stop on I-96 from Muskegon to Detroit, so you can't believe the great taste I have in my mouth after savoring that one."
The Red Wings watched Abdelkader a lot, beginning when he was Michigan's "Mr. Hockey" at Mona Shores High School in Muskegon. He went on to play in the United States Hockey League at Cedar Rapids before getting a scholarship to play at Michigan State University, where he led the Spartans to the 2007 NCAA championship -- scoring the winning goal in a 3-1 victory over Boston College with just 18.9 seconds left.
"He's big. He's strong. A tremendous skater. You could say he's been on our radar for a long time," Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland said. "Not to say he won't score goals, because he was pretty productive at Michigan State and at Grand Rapids (AHL). But we see him as a physical player who someday we envision as a shutdown forward, someone who can help neutralize the other team's best forwards.
"That job may not sound glamorous, but to the Red Wings, it's an essential part of winning -- one of those important puzzle pieces."
The level-headed youngster already knows he's no Pavel Datsyuk
or Henrik Zetterberg
"I know I need to work on my game and get stronger," he said Saturday night after scoring a goal in just his eighth playoff game -- first in the Final. "Right now, I'd like to stay at the NHL level, but I know I can improve faster by playing a lot at Grand Rapids rather than be the 12th or 13th forward in Detroit."
Abdelkader made a big contribution despite playing only 5:10 -- less than any player on either team.
made a good play behind the net and when I yelled at him, he gave me a great pass," Abdelkader said. "I got off a good first shot and (Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury made a great save. The puck sort of squirted up in the air, I jumped up, grabbed it, pulled it down and put it on the net.
"I think this goal is right up there with the one I had at Michigan State. But because that was kind of like a Game 7 situation, I think that will be hard to beat."
What makes Abdelkader so important to the Red Wings' future is how he fits their system -- and how likable he is as a teammate.
"I'll never forget coming out of Michigan State a year ago and stepping right onto the ice in the NHL," Abdelkader laughed. "In my first game against Columbus (April 3), we won and clinched the Presidents' Trophy.
"I was a ball of nerves because it was something I'd always dreamed about as a kid. After the game, Nick Lidstrom gave me the puck and congratulated me on my first game. How cool is that?"
The Red Wings always talk about how development of talent is the most important part of getting a finished product when the player arrives at the NHL level. That development can also be further enhanced without even without going on the ice -- like in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, when Abdelkader and several other reserves were around the team at the most important time and learned from the experience.
"It's hard to put down your favorite games when they come a mile a minute," said Abdelkader, drafted No. 42 in 2005. "I remember watching Game 5 of last year's Final with the rest of the practice squad. We were all on edge. Three overtimes. Highs and lows. It was a great game to watch –- pucks going off posts, goalies making big saves –- but it was nerve-wracking. We had to huddle in the lounge after each overtime period to make sure no one saw us.
"And then after Game 6, it was fun to go out on the ice and get to skate and celebrate the Stanley Cup championship. I hope to earn that chance once again this year."
"I think this goal is right up there with the one I had at Michigan State. But because that was kind of like a Game 7 situation, I think that will be hard to beat." -- Justin Abdelkader
Abdelkader's development is definitely on target. Big goal. Strong performance. And he's getting better and better.
Said an excited Abdelkader, "They might party all night up I-96 in Muskegon tonight."
With more parties likely in the future.